The Elian metaphor

If we really cared about Cuban children, we'd end the embargo.

By Joe Conason
Published April 25, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Long before "Buena Vista Social Club" revived American interest in Cuban
music, the biggest pop hit among Havana's disaffected teenagers was a tune
called "Ese Hombre Es Loco" (That Man is Crazy). Though the video version
featured images of Napoleon, Hitler and Ronald Reagan,
the urban underground whispered that the true subject of the song's
provocative lyrics was "El Jefe" -- dictator Fidel Castro.

Yet today, in the midst of international mania over a six-year-old boy, it
seems that Castro isn't the only one driven mad by four decades of embargo,
standoff and overheated rhetoric. The madness surrounding Elian Gonzalez -- so contagious that it has
infected politicians and pundits of both parties -- provides an apt metaphor
for the insanity of overall American policy toward Cuba.

For more than 40 years, the leaders of the exile community in Miami have
believed that economic pressure and an occasional act of terrorism would
eventually dethrone Castro. Most of them still cling to those beliefs, despite
the indisputable truth that such tactics have failed and failed miserably.
Accordingly, a loud claque of fanatics down in Little Havana have declared
that little Elian Gonzalez is a messenger sent from heaven to uphold their
cause. To them the boy is a miniature saint, sometimes accompanied by
apparitions of the Virgin Mary in bathroom mirrors and swimming pools.

Caught up in their politico-religious frenzy, the exile leaders have attracted
a motley variety of supporters. On the editorial page of the Wall Street
Journal, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan has asserted not only
that a school of dolphins rescued Elian from the perils of the Florida Strait
and "surrounded him like a contingent of angels," but that this alleged
miracle should be seen "as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption
that God's creatures had been commanded to protect one of God's children."

To cite such signs and portents is to suggest that anyone who thinks Elian
belongs with his father -- such as the editorial writers at the equally
conservative New York Post, and for that matter most Americans -- must be
ungodly (and probably Castro-loving) pinkos.

The wackiness engendered by Elian's plight has also seized Vice President Al
Gore, whose remarks about administration policy toward Elian have made
him sound both discombobulated and disloyal. Nurturing the strange notion
that he can somehow entice ultraconservative Cuban-Americans to vote for
him against George W. Bush, the vice president has succeeded instead in
alienating nearly every Democratic constituency in Florida and the other 49
states. Reiterating his pandering after the Miami raid served only to irritate
all of these potential supporters once again. But he seems incapable of
restraining himself on the subject.

So does New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who castigated the Department of Justice
for using "unconscionable" force to retrieve Elián and restore him to his
father. With his history of outspoken justifications for the actions of law
enforcement officers who kill unarmed civilians, as opposed to merely
pointing guns at them, Giuliani might have more wisely remained silent on
the Miami raid, which injured nobody.

The editorialists at the New York Times have sounded confused, too. For
many weeks the Times has urged the Clinton administration to resolve the
mess in Miami and send Elián home. Just the other day columnist Maureen
Dowd, who often reflects the consensus of the paper's editorial team,
mocked the attorney general's supposed dithering. Finally, having attempted
for weeks to negotiate a settlement, Reno relied upon the cool
professionalism of INS and Border Patrol officers to end a standoff that had
come to resemble a hostage situation. Since Saturday's predawn raid,
however, the Times editors have scolded Reno harshly for her "precipitous"

Meanwhile, Dowd's fellow pundit William Safire appears to have suffered a
relapse of what can only be called a bad case of Cold War paranoia. Riffling
through a moldy John Birch Society stylebook, Safire has darkly hinted that
the famous photograph of a joyful Elián reunited with his father is Commie
propaganda, put out by the Clinton White House and its allies in the
"left-wing" Protestant churches. The agitated columnist evidently agrees with
Elián's cousin Marisleysis González, the self-appointed "surrogate mother,"
who insists that the famous picture of father and son cannot possibly show
"the real Elián." (So would it be the alien Elián, perhaps?)

When calmer voices can be heard, they will declare that Reno acted
properly and wisely to uphold the father's right to rejoin his child. They will
decry the unreasonable conditions that the González family in Miami tried to
force on a man who, at their insistence, had journeyed to the United States
from Cuba in the expectation of good faith from his estranged relatives. They
will note that Elián was being manipulated and traumatized by schemers
who attempted to alienate him from his own father. They will point out that
the situation in Miami was becoming more, not less, dangerous, both to the
child and to the surrounding community, as the exile leadership demanded
an ideological victory.

What those more restrained voices should point out as well is that if we
really cared about all the children of Cuba, and not just a cute little refugee
boy, we would finally end the inhumane embargo and diplomatic stalemate
that have only served the interests of Castro and his aging enemies -- while
driving families like Elián's and American democracy itself, over and over
again, to the very edge of lunacy.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Cuba George W. Bush Rudy Giuliani The New York Times